Thursday, April 28, 2011

Maple Sugaring in Edmonton: The Numbers

The sap run ended a couple weeks ago, and all my sap has been processed into syrup. I described the tapping process here. The first tree I tapped actually forks into two large trunks. Since both trunks are more than ten inches across, I put one tap in each. Part way through the sap run, I realized that I have another maple tree on the other side of my yard, so in total I had three taps.

Now I'll fill you in on the collection and processing of the sap. First, you have to walk through a lot of deep, slushy snow:

Here is the forked tree, on the east side of my backyard.

And here is the tree I missed at first, tucked away in the soggy southwest corner of the yard.

The buckets had to be emptied every day. Some days they would have overflowed if they hadn't been emptied. Even during periods of low flow, it's best to empty every day to maintain the freshness and cleanliness of the sap.

Sap flow started very high, then tapered quickly (daily sap quantities are listed below). Here is a shot from the first full day of the run, when I got about 4 L from the eastern tree.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the sap itself is delicious, even without being reduced to syrup. If you are only tapping one tree, you might get more bang for your buck by drinking a few litres of sap instead of reducing to get a cup or so of syrup. Something to consider.

Strain the sap to remove any debris and store in the fridge.

Once you have collected enough sap to fill a stock pot (10 L in my case), boil the sap over medium high heat. I was cautioned to do this outside, as allegedly a sticky residue can build up on surfaces if done indoors. I ignored this caution and boiled the sap on my stove with the vent hood running. No residue appeared, perhaps because I was processing a relatively small amount of sap.

As soon as the sap is brought to a simmer, it turns from clear to cloudy. If you continue to boil the sap down you get a very murky syrup that looks a lot like honey:

If you want clear syrup, you have to remove the "sugar sand," the calcium compound that is clouding the liquid. Lisa and I simply stopped boiling partway through the reduction, let the sugar sand settle to the bottom of the pot, then decanted the syrup and continued boiling. My understanding is that the sugar sand is not harmful in any way; it is removed simply to clarify the syrup. Here is a picture of some of the sugar sand we filtered out:

If you are diligent with your decanting and filtering, you will end with a more familiar looking, clear syrup.

I didn't reduce my syrup to the same thickness as commercial syrup. Besides being less sweet, the flavour of my syrup is much different than store-bought: there is a very pronounced fruitiness, one that I would associate with a fine honey.

The Numbers

Below are the quantities of sap I collected each day. Note how the flow starts very high, then tapers to almost nothing in a matter of days. At this point I thought that the run had ended, and I stopped checking my buckets. Then about a week later I was in my backyard and noticed that the buckets were overflowing. Some of the sap was lost, but I don't know exactly how much. Also, I don't know if the break in the flow had to do with the weather (it was very cold and overcast on those days), or if it is part of a regular cycle in the run. Interestingly, the second wave of the run produced noticeably sweeter sap.

The maple syrup article in On Food and Cooking said that sugar maple sap is typically reduced by about 40 times, and birch sap by about 100 times. Having a maple tree, but not a sugar maple, I was expecting to reduce somewhere between 40 and 100 times. I ended up reducing by only 29, though, as I mentioned above, my final product was not as thick and sweet as commercial syrup.

Tapping the trees took about ten minutes. Emptying and straining the sap took about ten minutes each day of the run. Boiling the sap down took a few hours every few days of the run, but obviously you don't have to stand over the pot and watch the liquid reduce. In the end I got a litre and a half of syrup, which I suspect will amply garnish our pancakes for a year.

For the longest time I thought that there are few maples around Edmonton, and that the ones that are here are no good for syrup. I was wrong. Now as I walk through my back alley in McKernan, I see suckering maples everywhere. Many of them are too small to tap, but there is still a huge amount of "untapped' sweetness in our city. Maples, like caragana, are much more common in the older communities of Edmonton than in the newer suburbs, as they are considered "messy" plants, what with all the suckering and keys...

Next winter I'll put a small ad in my community newspaper to see if there's anyone interested in learning to do this. If you have a mature maple (or birch) tree in your yard, here are some resources for you.

  • A great website with lots of detailed information:
  • Mack, Norman (ed.) Back to Basics: How to Learn and Enjoy Our Traditional Skills. ©1981. The Reader's Digest Association (Canada) Ltd. Montreal, QB.
  • Or contact me through Button Soup

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Button Soup Easter Dinner

The April installment of the Button Soup Supper Club was an Easter Dinner with Lisa's family, featuring some of the traditional, symbolic ingredients and dishes discussed earlier.  The menu:

Hot Cross Buns

Potted Rabbit, Crackers, and Cheese

Young Spinach with Bacon and Quail Egg

Smoked Ham with Scallop Potatoes

Oat Cake in Maple Syrup

Hot Cross Buns

Potted Rabbit, Crackers, and Cheese

Butchering Rabbits: a "break" from tradition

Rabbits are not usually butchered by neatly separating the joints, as you would a chicken.  They are broken into forequarters, hindquarters, and a saddle by cleaving right through the bones.  Chefs often bitch about how tedious butchering rabbits is, "especially since there's practically no meat on them."  Their words.  Not mine.

The problem with cleaving is that you're bound to splinter the bones.  I've bitten down on a fragment of rabbit bone in restaurants more than once.  Taking the time to properly butcher the rabbit by cutting through the joints and not breaking the bones minimizes the chances of choking someone.  It also shows that you care about your ingredients and take your job seriously.  Anyways...

Below, from top left: hindlegs, caul fat, kidney, heart, liver, tenderloins, forelegs, loin with belly attached.

The meat was confited and pulled...

..then potted.

I hope that the lady who invented Raincoast Crisps has made her fortune, because imitations are now everywhere I look: supermarket shelves, online recipes, restaurant cheese plates, as well as my kitchen.
Raincoast Crisps are made by baking a loaf flavoured with dried fruit, nuts, and herbs, then thinly slicing that loaf and baking it for a second time to make crackers.  Like I said, recipes abound online.  This one is my favourite.

The finsihed plate: potted rabbit, dried fruit crackers, Sylvan Star smoked gouda, and Smoky Valley Valencay.



Quail eggs!


A very fatty slab of bacon


Young spinach (which costs a fortune at the market at this time of year, but can be got...), hard-boiled quail eggs, bacon, onion, and vinaigrette.


Smoked Ham with Scalloped Potatoes

Problems with Brine Penetration

Even working from Ruhlman's recipes for ham, I always (always!) have problems with brine penetration.  With any ham larger than a hock, it seems that no matter how long I leave the meat in the brine, the brine can't reach the middle of the cut, closest to the bone. I might have to start injecting the brine deep into the meat...

Oatcake in Maple Syrup

This dish showcased this year's maple syrup.  A simple oatcake was baked, then cut into squares and cooled.  The baking dish was then filled with hot maple syrup, which the cake soaked up like a sponge.  Essentially a lazy man's pouding chômeur (a lazy man's poor man's pudding?)

Served with ice cream. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Sunday: Food as Symbol

The food commonly eaten on Easter Sunday is rich in symbolism.  The ingredients and dishes are rooted in two traditions: the Jewish Passover dinner, or Seder, and the pagan springtime festival of renewal and fertility.  Easter food shows how these two traditions have combined to form our current concept of the holiday.

Bread and Wine

Growing up, Easter Sundays began with a church service that re-enacts the last supper of Christ, which was a Seder.  The first “meal” that we ate on Easter Sunday was therefore a meager one: the sacrament of communion, an unleavened wafer and a sip of red wine. 

It is said that when the pharaoh freed the Hebrews, they fled Egypt so abruptly that they didn’t have time to let their bread dough rise.  To this day, for eight days at Passover, Jews abstain from leavened bread, in remembrance of the flight from Egypt.

Wine, too, has special significance at a Seder.  In fact, several glasses of wine are poured during the meal, each representing a different stage of the Hebrew exodus.

At the last supper, Jesus created new meanings for these traditional foods.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples.  “Take it and eat”; he said, “this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had returned thanks he gave it to them.  “Drink all of you from this,” he said, “for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant…”.1

Jesus used bread to symbolize his body, and wine to symbolize his blood.  Together they symbolize his bodily sacrifice to atone for the sins of mankind.  The taking of holy bread and wine has been the central sacrament of the Catholic faith for centuries.  Eating the body and drinking the blood is a way for followers to renew and participate in that sacrifice. 


Roasted lamb is another regular dish at Seders.  It represents the sacrificial lambs killed before the tenth plague in the exodus story.  The final plague that Yahweh sent to Egypt was a mist that killed the firstborn male of every house.  Before the plague descended, Hebrew families were instructed to slaughter a lamb and spread some of the lamb’s blood onto the door of their home.  This served as a signal for the plague to “pass over” the house.

Lamb later became a special symbol in the Christian faith, as “Lamb of God” was a common epithet for Christ.  Roasted lamb continues to be the most common Easter meal in sheep-rearing regions like Greece and Provence.

Beyond the specific religious connotations of lamb, there is a general connection between newly born animals and spring.  Animals, both wild and farmed, give birth in the spring so that the arrival of their children corresponds to the start of the growing season.  Beyond lamb, all manner of young animals have come to represent spring generally, and Easter specifically.  Suckling pig, for instance, is a common Easter dish in Lorraine.2 

Rabbit is a symbol of spring for a different reason.  With a long breeding season, a short gestation time, and large litters, rabbits have been pagan symbols of fertility since ancient times.  They often feature in Easter meals, especially in Germanic nations.3  Rabbit is not a common meat in North American homes, but it appears on our Easter tables in a different form, namely chocolate bunnies.


Eggs are an obvious symbol of birth and renewal, as they contain the beginnings of life.  Before the advent of industrial agriculture, the first eggs of the season would have been laid around Easter, as hens stopped laying during the winter.  Even if eggs could have somehow been coaxed out of chickens earlier in the year, they were forbidden during Lent through much of European history.

There are many elaborate Easter baking traditions involving eggs, notably from Mediterranean Europe, where Portuguese, Greek, and Italian bakers make rich loaves of bread with coloured, hard-boiled eggs baked into them.  Often the colour of the eggs is important.  Red, for instance, represents Christ’s blood.

A more modest version of this baking tradition is found in the hot cross bun.  Made from rich, yeasted dough with plenty of eggs and milk, traditionally these buns were scored with a cross before baking.  The cross has been deeply symbolic for thousands of years, representing infinity, rebirth, and the sun, so there was a tradition in Europe of scoring bread with a cross long before the birth of Christ.4 In fact the cross was a symbol of shame for early Christians, a reminder of Christ’s betrayal and death.  Over time the cross has come to symbolize resurrection.  Modern hot cross buns are usually drizzled with a cross of sweet sauce.

Hot cross buns as we know them originated in England, where street vendors sold them around Easter, singing:

Hot Cross Buns!
Hot Cross Buns!
One a penny!  Two a penny!
Hot Cross Buns! 

This song is still commonly sung to children across the British commonwealth.

Eggs that don’t make their way into Easter breads are often used in crafts, like painted eggs.  Eggs are either evacuated or hardboiled, then died or painted.  Traditionally the colours were extracted from food: red from beets, and blue from cabbage, for example.

Despite these long and (ahem) colourful traditions, eggs increasingly only appear in one form: chocolate.


Another way that the Easter dinner table mimics the renewal in the field is in the use of vegetables.  Spring provides fresh vegetables that haven't been seen in months.  Early-rising plants, like chives, onions, and asparagus are common at Easter dinner.


Easter food represents the complex history of the Christian faith from its roots in Judaism, its gradual break from several Jewish practices, such as dietary laws, and the assumption of many pagan holidays and symbols.  Easter food, from the communion wafer to the chocolate egg, represents the amalgamation of the Jewish and pagan cultures in the form of Christianity.

  1. The Jerusalem Bible, Matthew 26:26-28
  2. Larousse, p. 959.
  3. Larousse, p. 442.
  4. Duncan, p, 123.


1.     Jones, Alexander (Ed.).  The Jerusalem Bible.  ©1968 Doubleday and Company, Inc, Garden City, NY.
2.     Various.  Larousse.  © 2001 Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, NY.
3.     Duncan, Dorothy.  Feasting and Fasting.  © 2010 Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON.
4.     Civitello, Linda.  Cuisine and Culture, Second Edition.  ©2008 John Wiley and Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sap's Running

Some time on or around Saturday, April 2, the sap in my maple tree started running.

Details on the harvest to follow, with much number-crunching. Some preliminary observations.

  • the sap runs during the day, not so much at night
  • right now I'm getting about 1.5L of sap per day
  • the sap looks pretty much like water
  • the specific gravity of the sap is 1.008 (small but detectable amounts of sugar)
  • the sap tastes every so slightly sweet, with some very pronounced flavours: woody, nutty, very "green"
  • I think I could drink a glass of the sap with breakfast every morning for the rest of my life
Once I have an appreciable amount, maybe 10L, I'll start boiling.